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Blumenthal Needed a Debate Knockout. He Didn’t Get It.

The Connecticut Senate race provides an interesting test case for the proposition that the old political rules don’t apply this year. As demonstrated by last night’s debate between Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Linda McMahon, this election seems to be a referendum on the resumes of the two candidates. Voters are being asked to choose between a man who has spent his entire adult life on the public payroll and a woman who has spent her life in the private sector. Both have serious flaws. But the question is not only which of those flaws (Blumenthal’s lying about his military service during the Vietnam War or McMahon’s involvement with the disreputable world of professional wrestling) is more damning but also what sort of a potential senator fits the mood of the electorate this fall.

Polls have fluctuated, with the latest ones showing the Democrat gaining ground after earlier surveys indicated that his lead, once huge, had shrunk down to nearly nothing. But as Paul Bass, the editor of the New Haven Independent, wrote last week in the New York Times, McMahon’s association with wrestling has helped rather than hurt her. That’s due not only to the changes in culture, which render the scripted violence of the WWE less appalling to the public, but also because its edgy tenor appeals to a wider demographic (including, as Bass notes, working-class and Hispanic voters, who are an important part of the Democrats’ base) than perhaps it once did.

As New York Times blogger Nate Silver has noted, there might be very few undecided voters left in this race, a fact that should work to Blumenthal’s advantage. But Blumenthal, the man the Times has called “Martha Coakley in Pants,” needed to demonstrate in this first debate that, whatever his own failings, his opponent was simply unsuitable to serve in the Senate. He did not do that last night and is unlikely to make that point stick in the month remaining before Election Day.

McMahon’s demonstrated ability to go toe-to-toe with Blumenthal in the debate and still emerge on her feet was crucial to her candidacy. In an election year in which even Connecticut’s liberal voters are largely dissatisfied with the political class and its addiction to spending and taxes, Blumenthal’s riposte to McMahon’s answers to a debate question about how to create jobs — “I’m not running to be an entrepreneur as a senator” — hit exactly the wrong note for 2010. If results from generic polls — such as Gallup’s survey, which showed a huge swing to the Republicans over Democrats — are credible, then there are going to be some results next month that will be driven by this wave of political sentiment in spite of the conventional wisdom about the individual candidates. For all the Democrats’ inherent advantages in that state, the Connecticut race may show how a flawed candidate running on a record of private business accomplishments and skepticism toward government will have an edge this November over another flawed one whose life has been spent in public office.